The Escalation Trap

Do you prefer listening to reading? Listen to an audio treatment of this article in the form of RC Podcast Episode 123: The Escalation Trap.

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If your estranged adult child or children requested no contact, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised if they suddenly contact you.

And if you’re like other parents you might be a bit nervous, but you’ll try to make the most of the opportunity… And risk falling into a very unfortunate trap.

It’s a snag created by circumstance, rather than malice aforethought. It’s not a trap the typical estranged adult child intentionally sets for her parents.

If your estranged, explicitly no-contact adult child reaches out to you and it goes well, you can be forgiven for thinking the door has been opened.

Assuming it’s time to start reconciling, you’ll reach out back to your child, inviting further connection. And sooner or later, your child will suddenly be gone again. Or he’ll send a confusing or harsh response that will leave you breathless.

You’ll have fallen into what I call The Escalation Trap.

Raising the Stakes

Your child reaches out to you. You respond to whatever the need was that prompted the contact. And then …

You initiate more contact. You send a photo, quotation or link. An offer of help. An invitation to get together sometime. In other words, the contact escalates.

If your child doesn’t respond well, or at all, to increasing communication, the contact may have expanded past her current saturation point.

Your need and desire to connect with your child isn’t wrong. And neither is your child’s need and desire for psychological space. Both are important. And your relationship may be seeking a new balance between them.

There could be other issues as well. If your adult child seems to blow hot and cold around contact, check out Episode 38 of the Reconnection Club Podcast and try to identify any specific triggers.

Then, if your no-contact estranged adult child contacts you, remember the following tips.

1. Curb your enthusiasm. Of course it’s good to hear from your child; contact always contains possibilities. But remind yourself that it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of estrangement. Take your child’s contact as a cue to pull out the strategy notes you made while working through Step 2 of the Reconnection Club Road Map.

2. Slowww dowwwwn. I know it’s nearly impossible, but try not to rush to solidify the relationship. Unless you were accused of too little involvement or interest in this child in the past, you can’t afford to escalate now. Pump the brakes instead. Focus on offering only responses, and only those that are necessary.

Be warm, but not effusive. Be loving, but quietly so. Be generous, but only when asked.

Paradoxically, the less time you feel you have to reconnect with your child, the more important it may be to take things slowly.

3. Give your child the reins. Let go of your own ideas about how reconciliation should unfold. Your adult child initiated this; it’s reasonable to wait and see how she wants to re-engage.

If she asks for help with reconnecting, maybe you can help. Otherwise, keep the pace of reconnection sustainable by letting your child set it.

4. Don’t engage in serious discussions over text or email. These should take place in person, or at least on the phone. Trying to have an important conversation with an estranged adult child via text or email is like walking a high wire without a net. It’s dangerous.

You can validate and respect your child without doing exactly what he wants. Especially if what he wants is likely to cause trouble between you. Protect yourself and the relationship by refusing to participate in potentially damaging activities.

If you’re not sure how to say no to texting, read Anne Dickson’s book on assertiveness, A Woman in Your Own Right (it works for men, too).*

5. Give your child the last word. If you’re not certain a particular conversation is over, review your child’s last text or email. You don’t have to respond unless there’s either a question, or an implied question, such as, “I hope you’re not mad at me.”

If your child texts at the end of a good exchange, “Thanks!” that’s a perfectly acceptable end to the conversation. You may think there’s no harm in sending a “You’re welcome!” or a heart emoji in reply. And technically, there isn’t. But every time your no-contact child contacts you and gets the last word, she’s learning that it’s safe to contact you, because she can end the conversation whenever she wants.

And if your child wants to hear more from you, she’s capable of letting you know.

I hope those 5 tips will help you avoid the Escalation Trap with a formerly no-contact estranged adult child. Please remember that like all of our guidelines, these tips don’t necessarily apply to every case of estrangement. Always use your own judgment.

But for at least some estranged adult children, it’s true: If they’re allowed to get close on their own terms, without contact escalating against their will, in time they may become more comfortable reaching out just to say hello.

– Tina Gilbertson

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